Prayer, like poetry, makes nothing happen,
if "make" means control
and "happen" means an instant, an event.
No incantations with prayer, no spells;
nor with poems. You leave
scratching your head,
ambivalent to what has transpired.
Sometimes forced, sometimes fluid,
never simple, unless void of all
meaning save the surface.
But prayer and poems both deal in depths;
they refuse surface and befuddle the hurried.
And poems, like prayers, work
with more than words,
sometimes in spite of them:
the conversation between words and rhythm,
movement and meaning,
soul and maker,
music in words
that moves hearts with fingerprints
History has few exemplars to be proud of.
The Greeks did well with Priam, at least,
willing to face “iron-hearted,
man-slaying Achilles” for the sake of a son.
My own culture’s replete with absent men,
“bronze Anzacs” taught from birth not to cry.
The Biblical witness, too, leaves something to be desired:
most too busy with wives in multiples to see
sons ganging up on sons, hurling into ditches,
covering many-coloured garments with blood.
Some simply could not hear, over
the chewing of fruit, the sound of the older
saying to the younger brother, “Come for a walk.”
One king learnt too late that all
the years at war, or watching rooftop baths,
did not teach a son to trust or respect his old man.
Only this cry rings out as a lesson: “Absalom,
my son, my son! Would that it were me instead of you.
Absalom, my son, my son. Absalom, my son!”
Perhaps the polygamists, war-mongers and liars
have this to teach us: the insufficiency of one
man of dust to be the all, the end, of the home.
In his frailty and deceit he clears the way
for another tale, another sight:
the wealthy man embracing pig-stained rags,
the fattened calf killed,
the Father’s arms stretched.
This witness alone can teach the twisted tongue
the meaning of our faintly-voiced, “Father.”
…you will not find my actual life in these pages so much as my thoughts on the graces Our Lord has given me. I have reached the stage now where I can afford to look back; in the crucible of trials from within and without, my soul has been refined, and I can raise my head like a flower after a storm and see how the words of the Psalm have been fulfilled in my case: “The Lord is my Shepherd and I shall want nothing…”
St Thérèse of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul
My brother led me to prayer,
a child, afraid in the dark.
My sister taught me, downcast, to say,
Why so downcast, O my soul?
My parents taught me to ask and search
yet not be controlled by the heart’s wild waves.
My teachers fed my questions
and books sustained my mind.
Lewis taught me magic
and Love deep, deep in time.
Robert Frost was early rhythm;
Eliot and Herbert came later on.
Auden taught me the happy eye,
the sober perspective on the folded lie,
Kierkegaard the lily’s glory
and the grace that strikes in anxious thought.
Bunyan and Luther and Thérèse
knew the scruples that strike, and the way –
the Little Way at Jesus’ feet –
so once again I’m led to pray.
My wife has taught me the open heart;
now my home and hearth expand.
O Love that finds me everywhere:
Thank You. Thank You. Thank You.
If you find them worth publishing, you have my permission to do so – as a sort of ‘White Book’ concerning my negotiations with myself – and with God.
(Dag Hammarskjöld, in a letter to Leif Belfrage)*
And so they sat together, the poet
without “a single word of Swedish” at hand,
and the translator, to find together –
to trace – the private markings of the public soul,
the one to give the language, the other the heart,
the rhythm, that “unexpressed dialogue”
without which language dies.
And what did they find, as
layers fell and layers grew?
A planned self-defence? The last
word to silence posthumous debate?
No, the heart’s x-ray more like it;
a confession; a line drawn around
the self’s ever-moving hand.
He knew no Swedish, but Auden at least
knew that movement well: the soul’s
duplex structure; the twin-tangle of light and dark
that makes the mess called Man.
The redemption too; he knew that as well.
The call, the answer: the Whitsunday “Yes”.
This too is in the soul’s true language,
spoken best in the gap between
thought and speech, seen best when glimpsed
eyes squinted open to light,
half-closed to self, half-
forgetting all we thought we knew.
the soul is seen translating,
atom-swift. Catch it
as it propels to break new ground.
* Before his death, UN secretary general Dag Hammarskjöld left his journals to his friend and fellow diplomat Leif Belfrage. Poet W.H. Auden worked with Swedish writer and translator Leif Sjöberg to translate this diary into English. It was published under the English name “Markings”.
“When you’re absolute beginners,” folk singer M. Ward tells us, “it’s a panoramic view, from her majesty Mount Zion, and the kingdom is for you.” What he seems to suggest here is that, at any beginning point, there appears an infinite potentiality to life, stretching out like a majestic panorama before us. W.H. Auden, in his poem “Horae Canonicae”, suggests something similar, harking back to the story of Adam and Eve when describing the beginning of the day before God:
…smiling to me is this instant while
Still the day is intact, and I
The Adam sinless in our beginning,
Adam still previous to any act.
This can, of course, be a joyful moment of possibility, yet Auden recognises that the moment of potential sinlessness is an illusion. The day holds another truth as it unfolds:
I draw breath; this is of course to wish
No matter what, to be wise,
To be different, to die and the cost,
No matter how, is Paradise
Lost of course and myself owing a death.
All action as we enter our day, Auden suggests, is somehow driven by the fact that, as humans, we have desired and chosen a wisdom in ourselves, apart from God; we have desired a paradise which would have been given to us had we trusted but which we sought by our own merit and our own means and thus lost.
This moment of decision, begun – and decided – for us in the Garden of Eden yet also enacted daily in every human choice, fascinated an anxious Danish philosopher-theologian to the extent that he used it as the very basis for his seminal – although at times nearly unreadable – thesis on anxiety. The philosopher was Søren Kierkegaard, a man whose name is nearly synonymous with anxiety or, as it is sometimes translated in his work, dread. The Danish word which he used, “Angest”, has a common root to our word “angst”, which is sometimes a synonym for anxiety yet often has something of a more metaphysical or existential connotation to it. Kierkegaard, often considered the father of modern existentialism, is no doubt also partly responsible for this fact. He did not write about anxiety that had a clear foundation in circumstances, though here it is helpful and important to distinguish anxiety from stress: Kierkegaard was not concerned with what we might call anxiety which is driven by something quite clear and located in circumstances. The kind of anxiety or dread about which Kierkegaard wrote had more to do with potentiality: with the possibilities which clouded the human mind, most of them to do with what we as humans were and are capable of. For Kierkegaard, this began in the Garden of Eden, with original sin.
We need to note that, in Kierkegaard’s early life, anxiety had a more immediate meaning and significance. Accounts of his life emphasise the anxiety that his own father passed onto him, begun with his father’s terrified belief that, in cursing God as a young man, he had subsequently cursed himself and his family. Peter Bolt notes in his essay on Kierkegaard that his father “had a rather dark and grim Christianity”, which was no doubt at least in part the result of his belief that he was living under the curse of God and therefore could only fear Him, not love Him. Whether this is the primary “barb of sorrow” in his early life to which Kierkegaard refers in his journals, we cannot know for sure. However, there is another story he tells in his diary, told – in the kinds of veiled terms quite typical of Kierkegaard – as if it were hypothetical, not autobiographical, yet which has more than a ring of familiarity to it when we have read also of his relationship with his father. The story he tells concerns a father and son, “both very gifted, both witty, especially the father”. They share a relationship which is surprisingly intimate and tender, but nonetheless characterised by mutual despair:
Once in a long while the father would look at his son and would see that he was troubled; then he would stand before him and say: Poor boy, you are going about in quiet despair; (but he never questioned him more closely; alas, he couldn’t, for he too went about in a state of quiet despair). Beyond that no word was ever breathed about the matter. But within the memory of man this father and son may have been two of the most melancholy beings that ever lived.
We cannot know for sure that Kierkegaard’s own father-son relationship had any direct bearing on this story, and certainly he used his journals not only for personal disclosure but also as testing-grounds for ideas and modes of expression which would later appear in his published works. This story itself appeared in a slightly different form in his book, Stages on Life’s Way. Yet what he tells us in this chillingly simple story is that fathers and sons can so often keep one another in states of “quiet despair”. Kierkegaard would later call despair “the sickness unto death”, describing it as such because it caused the despairing subject to be altogether unable to find hope of transformation in God. In this way we see that despair and anxiety can be two ends of the same spectrum: anxiety lies when we see the potential for destructive action within us, and despair when such destructive action, occurring against or within us, has led us to a point of hopelessness. Yet both are based on the invisible and the inward: there was nothing objective to tell Kierkegaard’s father that he was cursed, any more than could be said of any other family that experienced suffering. Both anxiety and despair therefore seem to deal with the realms of possibility: either negative possibility, or the apparent absence of any possible good. Kierkegaard’s father despaired because he believed himself and his family cursed; his actions and choices seemed then to determine their future, and that future was an altogether helpless one.
Significantly, Kierkegaard notes in The Sickness Unto Death that the human ability to despair is a positive thing; yet the actuality of despair is not. If humans can despair, they are able to anticipate a negative situation and stop it before it happens:
The possibility of this sickness [despair] is man’s advantage over the beast; to be aware of this sickness is the Christian’s advantage over natural man; to be cured of this sickness is the Christian’s blessedness.
Yet to sink into the sickness leads to death. This moment of potentiality lies at the heart of much of what Kierkegaard writes about both anxiety and depression. Writing elsewhere on “the despair of possibility”, he says:
In possibility everything is possible. Hence in possibility one can go astray in all possible ways, but essentially in two. One is the wishful yearning form, the other is the melancholy fantastic – on the one hand hope; on the other, fear or anguished dread.
For Kierkegaard, the kind of “panoramic view” which M. Ward describes is not always positive. We can go astray when we think of possibility in too “wishful” and ungrounded a manner. Yet more importantly we can go astray when we fear possibility. The panoramic view could hold any number of things, both good and bad, much as an agoraphobic will fear an open space for the dangers or threatening crowds that might soon occupy it.
But why would we fear open possibility? Kierkegaard writes of such fear as the consequence of original sin. In a highly complex thesis, he explores how our sinful action now differs from original sin: “Adam’s sin”, he writes, “has sinfulness as its consequence”, whereas our sin “presupposes sinfulness as its condition”. That is to say, just like in Auden’s vision of waking to a new day, it has already been predetermined in humanity that sin will influence our actions and our decisions. Yet on-going human action perpetuates sin: “sinfulness is in the world only insofar as it enters through sin”’; that is, each time we sin, sin “enters the world”. It only exists in the world through sinful action, because, if it pre-existed human action, then it could only be said that Adam sinned because sin already existed, and thus he would not be culpable; nor would we.
This is a line of argument which is bound to make many people’s heads spin, and some may feel more anxious on reading Kierkegaard’s account of anxiety than before they began. Yet there seems to be a very helpful thread within his thesis onto which we can hold: just as humans have been able to take a “qualitative leap” into sin, so too can we take an equivalent, though infinitely more liberating, leap into repentance and freedom. We feel anxiety when we stand at the moment of decision, when we recognise in ourselves both the desire for goodness and the impulse towards sin. In this vein, Kierkegaard defines anxiety as “freedom’s self-disclosure before itself in possibility”: anxiety stems from the possibility that something destructive may happen, and invokes fear through the possibility and the tension that it brings before it turns into reality. Kierkegaard notes that, because of our conflicted and corrupted natures as humans, we can feel anxiety both about evil and about good; neither sits comfortably within us, at the moment of decision.
If we follow this line of argument, then anxiety, much like the ability to feel despair, can be a good rather than a negative force within us: “Whoever has learnt to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate” (emphasis added). While we may not agree wholly with Kierkegaard’s polemical language here, we can hopefully still see the merit in what he says: that, when we learn to listen to what anxiety tells us – much like when we listen to pain and know that we should act to remedy our physical distress – we can use that moment of anxiety to turn towards God and away from sin.
In this sense, Kierkegaard can take the rather radical step of describing anxiety as “saving through faith”. Making the clear distinction here that he is not speaking of anxiety which “is about something external” but rather in “the sense that it is the person himself who produces the anxiety”, he goes on to note that anxiety can in fact be seen to be “freedom’s possibility”. If sin is our preconditioned nature, then the fact that we feel anxiety over sin indicates that we have the potential still to turn from sin. Sin, however ingrained it may be within our natures, still remains a choice, so long as it has the potential to cause us anxiety. The man who can kill without any dread over the act he is about to perform has, in this sense, lost “freedom’s possibility”; there is nothing in his mind which enables him to recognise the moment of choice between sin and righteousness.
There is, no doubt, a more nuanced theological discussion needed here, about the two natures of man and about the extent to which sin hardens us to the possibility of righteousness. Yet we see, for instance, in Paul’s account of sin in Romans 7 that the human heart is capable of swinging between a desire to do good and an inability to do so. This, of course, remains an impasse, so long as human strength is our only enabling force. The means by which anxiety about sin can be transformed into a positive, Kierkegaard writes, is “saving through faith”. In a powerful closing statement to The Concept of Anxiety, he declares that “the person who, in respect of guilt, is educated by anxiety will rest only in the Atonement”. There is a firm theological message contained in this brief statement: if we are “educated by anxiety”, we learn of our potential to turn from sin, but also know that it is only Jesus’ sacrifice which can enable that turning to take place. Otherwise, we are stuck simply in the moment of anxious potential, like St. Paul without Christ, doing what we would not do and unable to do the good that we would do.
Kierkegaard, of course, knew very little about the science of the human brain. What we know now is still miniscule compared with what there is to know, yet we are still aware of facts which would, to some eyes, seem to negate Kierkegaard’s highly philosophical and theological thesis. Yet all that we say about the human brain, if we believe that we live in a fallen creation, can only be descriptive, not prescriptive. At best we can say, “Now the human brain appears to operate in this manner, and as a result we feel x in response to y.” We cannot say, “This is the way that humans were meant to be.” If sin, as Kierkegaard firmly believed, has corrupted our ability to choose between right and wrong and has left us anxious, then it seems perfectly plausible that scientists could still find evidence of this problem in a section of the brain – the amygdala, for instance, in matters of post-traumatic stress – which, broken by the cause of sin, now contains the effect. Anxiety which results from the sins of others, though different in its nature, has the same cause as the anxiety which Kierkegaard describes: we fear others, because we know what others can do to us, and our awareness of this has as much to do with our own ability to sin as it does the ability of others to do so. Bullies who become bullies themselves enact this fact daily: that the sin which occurs in another can equally occur in us, and lives on in acts of self-perpetuating, mutual culpability.
Kierkegaard’s life was, sadly, a troubled one to the end. Despite experiencing grace and forgiveness later in life in a way which seemed to transform him significantly, he nevertheless went on to attack the established church in a way which, however righteously motivated it may have been, was not especially gracious. It also remains unclear whether, in breaking off his engagement as a young man, he did a righteous and obedient act before God or made himself a needless martyr. Yet we can be thankful nevertheless that Kierkegaard helped us see a way for anxiety to be, harmful though it is, a pathway to repentance in showing us our own weakness and brokenness before God. If Kierkegaard was indeed “educated by anxiety”, then we can at least to some extent credit his experiences of anxiety with the profundity and beauty of his devotional writings and the many magnificent, God-focused prayers which, broken in himself, he penned as he turned himself and others towards God. This prayer, one of my favourites, is a perfect expression of this:
Father in Heaven! Thou hast loved us first, help us never to forget that Thou art love so that this sure conviction might triumph in our hearts over the seduction of the world, over the inquietude of the soul, over the anxiety for the future, over the fright of the past, over the distress of the moment. But grant also that this conviction might discipline our soul so that our heart might remain faithful and sincere in the love which we bear to all those whom Thou hast commanded us to love as we love ourselves.
Or, in still more elegant simplicity, this perfect prayer for any anxious soul:
Teach me, O God, not to torture myself, not to make a martyr out of myself through stifling reflection, but rather teach me to breathe deeply in faith.
To that, we can only say: Amen.
Auden. W.H. (1972). Collected Poems, ed. E. Mendelson. London: Faber and Faber.
Auden, W.H. (1952). The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard. New York: New York Review Books.
Bolt, P. (2008). “Kierkegaard on Anxiety”. In B. Rosner, ed., The Consolations of Theology. Grand Rapids, Mi.: Wm. B. Eerdmans.
Kierkegaard, S. (1993). The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard, ed. P. Rohde. New York: Carol Publishing.
Kierkegaard, S. (1996). The Prayers of Kierkegaard, ed. Perry B. Lefevre. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press.
Kierkegaard, S. (2004). The Sickness Unto Death, trans. A. Hannay. London: Penguin Books.
Kierkegaard, S. (2014). The Concept of Anxiety, trans. A. Hannay. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.
Ward, M. (2009). “For Beginners”. In Hold Time (Album). Merge Records.
As October draws to a close, it’s time for an essay to draw together our month spent with W.H. Auden. He is a controversial figure in Christian poetry, and so this essay comes with a minor warning that it may not be to everyone’s reading taste. But he is, I think, still a rewarding poet to look at, for all his weaknesses and for some of the problems that he presents as a Christian writer. I hope that you all find it an interesting read.
For my last Auden poem for the month, I have decided to fuse much of his poetry together in this homage to his work, great and humble alike. Along with the many famous, more memorable poems, Auden also wrote several poems which were kinds of collections of miniatures, poetic vignettes, sometimes sweet, sometimes stark and pointed. I have decided to pay tribute today to this, lesser-known side of his work. There are many poems which are referenced and which have inspired me in this poem – too many to name. The eagle-eyed Auden fan might like to spot them…it could be a fun weekend game…The first one has been done for you.
Audenesques Fate succumbs many a species; one alone jeopardises itself. (W.H. Auden, “Marginalia”) 1. Street congealed in traffic, I pause, sip long black and rest to ambient chatter in café. Music wafts love songs to Man and what singers know, I too concur: that all of this is somehow glorious – yet sullied; beautiful to blemished eyes: a rose which, pock-marked, attracts the trampling of eager feet. Love expressed in the rose; yet what expressed in the trampling? Feet powerful in the steps they tread? For now these surfaces must suffice; forget the oppositions or how short the long black lasts. You smoke; I should exercise we all spend too long in cars and every heart needs the exertion of bowing. Today it rains; though it is spring, the air smells just like winter. Forget, forget. The street will pass you by. Men on missions grab their drinks and go; wedding guests pause between “I do” and “Raise a glass.” 2. In the afternoon, he walks the dog. Things-to-do and e-mails blink; the stillness races. . . . Beside the library window, she sits, beanie-clad, smart phone in hand. In a world enclosed, she is unknown. . . . Books stay closed; computers flash. The world is coded and our souls do not know the code. . . . The sea gives up its silent pearls; Margetson on the toilet wall. She sells seashells by the seashore. . . . Who, then, are we? We who sit complacently before the street, eager to be remembered, eager to forget? . . . Home again, we smile, relieved: Your feet are clean, your steps may stop. The world has not touched you. 3. You saw it all, the dive on fifty-second street your window. Freud probed the mind, you probed the heart and found dirt within your own. . . . This is how it always is. The soul has countries where no ships can go. . . . Confucius says: the surface matters. Surfaces sometimes absorb but the gloss always reflects. . . . Inconstant, we wander. There are landscapes in your eyes which I would long to see. . . . It did not surprise you: you saw brothers whose hearts were mirrors; They saw no other eyes. . . . What then? Does the young man lounge with pride? Does the sun reveal our splendour? No sun today; splendour then must hide. . . . The Devil’s soothing voice, contextualised, conceals the fact that he hates the lot of us. 4. Pigeons coo because they can; the town-square is their friend. Where, stranger, is your home? . . . Civilisation stands where you left it: monuments to physics and and past’s worst indiscretions. . . . If goodness is forever, then perhaps you might explain the death of goodness in my mind. . . . Silence. Your footsteps deny the road. Pianos pirouette in time but your ears are a vacuum. . . . Statistics lie; the Devil is a determinist but Christ hung on a tree. . . . Although His Image, I betray the breath in me. Forgive, forgive. Wrath, pass me by. . . . The law is hidden in the gaze which says, Thou shalt not kill. I will arise and see.
One of Auden’s more challenging but also most remarkable poems is “Under Sirius”, written as a response to medieval Latin poet Fortunatus who, by Auden’s account, longed for humanity to experience some sort of tragedy to shake them to their senses. Auden’s inspiration came from the time known as the “dog days”, associated with the star Sirius, in which long, languid and hot days seemed to Auden’s Fortunatus to be symptoms of the inner death of humanity. If you are living in Melbourne, you may be better able to relate to a season which can’t make up its mind, which shifts from spring to autumn to winter and back to spring again, all in the space of a few days. So I have used this Melburnian weather pattern as the starting point for my poem.
Indecisive Spring (After W.H. Auden’s “Under Sirius”) Would your hope make sense If today were that moment of silence, Before it break and drown…? (W.H. Auden, “Under Sirius”) Now, of course, we wend our way through changing days: The sun peers sometimes out of wind And rain and autumn cling to spring’s façade. Sun-bakers in Apollo-worship find Their hopes flit and dance extempore around; Listen, listen, the silent sound Of spring weaves in with leaves falling, Disappointment swept up in langour And our summer dreams ever calling. If this is that moment of silence, it hangs between The dog star and our torpid sun: A quiet emptiness, a vacuum, saying, revealing nothing. Days pass and fade, not yet begun, And, sagging into wounded land and sea, The Fisher King bleeds his ancient reverie; Thunder mutters petulant And you, Fortunatus, shake your head At clouds both wise and arrogant. Indecision creeps to the table; the meal eats itself; Still the family sings and curtains sway Into the sun long, long ago set. And should we forget, in our vaporous way, Who we are and what we should be, The seasons too may fail to see That all things wend their changing course Yet lead soon back to always-here. Will you, then, be watching as The truths behind the languor finally appear? Your answer dangles limp in the clouds, No reason for these rhyme-and-riddle seasons. Never fear: should spring slip into winter now, Nonetheless the sun commits no treason. Our orbit weaves elliptical as it’s always done And time will know for sure what we’ve become: Children who forgot to thank the hands That shaped our dust and gave it lips And made our ever-circling souls to stand.
One of W.H. Auden’s greatest gifts as a poet was his versatility, being one of the major figures in the 20th century for resurrecting a wide range of traditional poetic forms. He was as comfortable with free verse as he was with long-forgotten French forms. His masterly villanelle, “But I Can’t” – an achingly simple meditation on time – is a perfect example of this. The villanelle is one of my favourite of the traditional forms, so I had fun working with this form for my response to Auden’s poem. One of the advantages of the villanelle is that the repeating refrains allow for more to be said through the form than the words themselves convey. I hope you enjoy both Auden’s use of the form and my response.
The Lesson (After W.H. Auden’s “But I Can’t”)
It doesn't pay to look too deep If our lives will go on in their contented way; We must learn just to breathe and sleep. The questions that in silence creep And nag at our minds: cast them away. It doesn't pay to look too deep. Graze in fields, content like sheep, Wander, wonder, drift and stray: We must learn just to breathe and sleep. Time may show up the truths we keep And make our lies as plain as day; It doesn't pay to look too deep. For time will run and time will leap; What time will show, I dare not say. We must learn just to breathe and sleep. The answer's vague and guessing's cheap. (If desperate, we can always pray.) It doesn't pay to look too deep; We must learn just to breathe and sleep.
The first of our Auden poems for the month is the wonderful “Law, say the gardeners, is the sun”, a poem that Auden wrote in 1939 around the time of his conversion to Christianity. It was famously written shortly after his profound and emphatic “September 1, 1939”, the poem he wrote on the outbreak of WWII. Where that poem made grand statements about how we “must love one another or die”, “Law, say the gardeners” was much more hesitant in tone, yet also had at its heart the same message: that the need to love openly, universally, like God, was the only way to fulfil the law at the heart of humanity. You can read the original poem here – a masterpiece of rhyme, rhythm, form and voice – and below is my response to it.
Like Love (After “Law, say the gardeners, is the sun”) It hurts too much at times to try, at times it’s easier to hide, at times we could prefer to look our faces in the mirror’s book and tell ourselves that we’ve been wronged. At times we sing our funeral songs and make ourselves the martyrs of our own internal cause. At times we long for the applause of those who watch us and declare that all our castles of thin air are in this land the fairest. At times our scarcest victories lift us up like tallest trees and give us medals of Great Love. At times we long for wings of doves that we may fly away and be at rest where love cannot be seen. (At times we soar and leap.) At times we see fulfilled the Law which shows us God and our neighbor as true love’s worthiest objects. At times that Love takes our rejects, and all our refuse, all our sport, and lifts it up in heaven’s court, the evidence that love has lost, that none of us can pay the cost, that only when the arms that formed the Universe stretch out, love scorned, and offer up this allegory, only then can humans see that love is worth the try though love must make us die.